Our children are expected to perform better academically at a younger age than ever before. But new research says that time in the playground may be more beneficial than time in the classroom. Angela Boshoff-Hundal asks if we should we be taking play more seriously...

I was in New York a couple of years ago. It was on the cusp of autumn; the air was crisp and the trees flecked with gold. I took a walk down Fifth Avenue to people-watch the wealthy as they stepped out from under black-arched doorways, stony-faced doormen leading the way to gleaming, black cars. But it wasn’t the rich who caught my eye: rather, it was a young nanny; a woman I assumed was her friend; and a little pigtailed girl dressed in an enormous chequered school uniform.

“Are you headed home?” the friend asked the nanny.

“No,” the nanny answered. “Jessica has Chinese, ballet and math class this afternoon.”

“How old is she again?” the friend asked, her voice tinged with judgement.

“She just turned three,” the nanny said.

When I was three – in the late Eighties – I was wearing mismatched clothing and finger-painting at a beaten-up table in the backyard while my dog Winston slept at my bare feet. Clearly, things have changed.

Having fun is serious business

According to a 2015 survey undertaken by UK parenting website Netmums, one in nine children as young as three is being given homework at nurseries. While there have not been any UAE studies done to determine how much homework small children here get, most curriculums encourage them to start school at about the same age, which does raise the question: are we putting too much pressure on our little ones?

To answer this, parenting educator and co-founder of Love Parenting UAE Amy Vogelaar, who is a licensed ToddlerCalm consultant, quotes the late American children’s-education icon Fred Rogers: “While play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, play is serious learning. It’s how kids interact with and learn about their world.”

Amy adds, “According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. It allows them to explore the world, practise adult roles and gain confidence.”

In fact, play is so important to optimal child development that the UN High Commission for Human Rights has recognised it as a right of every child. While this recognition was intended to protect children from child labour and other forms of exploitation, “we might very well need to apply it to regular kids from normal homes, where the amount of time children spend playing has decreased significantly in recent years,” Amy says.

“Research shows that kids who are asked to give up play too early may experience academic and behavioural challenges, while kids who don’t get to play at all may suffer from mental health issues, like anxiety and depression – all of which are linked to hormones and neurotransmitters that are affected by physical activity, stress, exhaustion, reduced opportunity for imagination and creativity, and, possibly, behavioural problems. Giving up play too early in favour of academics and after-school activities also places a huge burden on parents who become taxi drivers from class to class. Life shouldn’t be that stressful for anyone.”

Find great ideas for creative play here

Playing can physically alter the brain

You could think of play – which can be defined as imaginative and active engagement with your environment and those around you – as being a child’s occupation. That’s according to Dubai-based KidsFirst executive director and occupational therapist, Nannette Wicker-Essick, and its play therapist Odette Geldenhuys. And the latest research shows that play may be even more important than time in the classroom – especially for newborns and children up to the age of three – with the experience of play being able to physically alter the connections of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex in beneficial ways.

“A baby is born ready to learn,” Odette explains. “However, brain development and the capacity to learn are heavily dependent on early life experiences. During the first three years of life, brain connections develop quickly in response to stimulation. The brain’s ability to physically change its structure and function – known as neural plasticity – occurs in response to external experiences. Adults, particularly caregivers, play a vital role in providing stimulation that establishes the neuron functioning of the brain that ultimately determines the pathways for language, coping, understanding and much more.”

So, play is practical prep for how a young brain will eventually deal with school, life, love and work. But for our children to gain the most beneficial development and allow the brain to build new circuits, they need to engage in plenty of so-called ‘free play’ – that means no adult control, no rules, no coaching, and no corrections.

“We have to give our children time and space to discover the joy and benefits of free play,” Odette explains. “This will give them the foundations for learning to speak, read, write and do maths. Play is also one of the building blocks in social skills. It provides children with opportunities to socialise with peers of the same age, and to learn to understand others, to communicate and negotiate. Cognitive play – through pretend play, sensory games, using play dough and even messing around in a sandpit – encourages children to learn, imagine, categorise and problem-solve. One of the therapeutic benefits of play is that it can give children the opportunity to express troubling aspects of their daily life, including stresses, trauma, family conflicts and other dilemmas.”

Find out the things that parents of smart children do here

Boredom can be a good thing

Before you rush out to buy an expensive educational toy and leave the kids to it, you might want to just sit back and do… nothing. “Kids don’t need to be taught how to play: they just need to be given the opportunity to play,” Amy explains.

“This means unscheduled time, and it means adults not directing the play or telling kids how to do it ‘correctly’. With this in mind, if you’re bringing toys into the equation, parents should know that some toys could actually discourage creative play because they are only designed to do one thing; typically these toys have batteries. Open-ended toys – like blocks or bricks, balls, cars, puppets and dolls – can open up imaginative or creative play, and found objects such as cardboard boxes, plastic tubs, pieces of fabric, rocks, sticks, dirt and sand can lead to hours of creativity. Boredom is a powerful tool that kids today don’t get to experience enough of. In fact, I encourage parents to let a little boredom sink in. Before you know it, your kids will have come up with some ingenious activity to fill the time – without you having had to instigate anything.”

Nannette agrees, but adds that in some cases – for example, in kids undergoing therapy or needing to work on certain physical or cognitive aspects of themselves such as social, organisational or motor skills – play with a purpose can be a good thing. “In general though, the term ‘educational play’ is relatively new, so being silly during play is still an integral part of children learning how to navigate social play,” she says.

“Whatever you do, play should be fun for everyone,” Amy adds. “Even if it’s setting aside 10 minutes or so a day of child-led play when you do exactly what your child wants to do – even if it isn’t your favourite activity – and then the rest of the time finding things that you will both enjoy doing together. After all, when your kids look back on their childhood, they’re not likely to remember that you were a good parent because you got them dressed and out the door on time in the morning. It’s when they look back on a childhood full of memories of play, silliness, roughhousing, singing, peekaboo and the like that they will remember us as the best parents they could possibly have had. Sure, kids need food, warmth, sleep and safety to survive, but they also need attachment, security and unconditional love to reach their highest potential. One way we can give that to them is by playing with them.”